Saronic raises $55M for autonomous ships amid DOD's Replicator push

By Georgina DiNardo  / October 10, 2023

Defense startup Saronic Technologies announced today it has secured $55 million in funding from private capital to accelerate research, development and production on autonomous maritime vessels in alignment with the goals cited by the Defense Department's new Replicator initiative.

Saronic, an Austin, TX-based defense company focused on bringing maritime autonomy to U.S. and allied navies, raised the money to further its autonomous vessel production without DOD’s help, but used cooperative research and development agreements with the department to build its own mission sets of autonomous boats.

“What we are focused on really is taking these platforms from human control via a remote control, one-to-one control, one person one platform, and really making them fully autonomous,” Rob Lehman, Saronic co-founder and chief commercial officer, said in an interview with Inside Defense. “So more than just waypoint navigation and not running into things, but true mission autonomy where you’re reducing the cognitive load on the warfighter and able to have one operator control many platforms so it’s a huge validation for us and taking those capabilities and adding real mission autonomy to what the platforms are able to do is going to be a gamechanger.”

Saronic’s announcement follows the unveiling of DOD’s Replicator initiative, which will work toward lower-cost solutions for mass production of swarming drones. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced the Replicator program on Aug. 28, noting the need to counter China’s military mass by creating and deploying thousands of “attritable” autonomous weapon systems over the next 18 to 24 months.

“The DOD wants to acquire thousands and thousands of autonomous platforms over the next 24 months,” Saronic’s co-founder and CEO Dino Mavrookas told Inside Defense. “They want to do that as a deterrence to China. If you look in the autonomous surface vessel space, there really is only one company that can produce at that speed and scale and that is us. And the reason that’s true is because we started as a technology company first that identified the capabilities that the DOD needs and said we will deliver those capabilities through boats. What the DOD has been experimenting with has been boat companies that are trying to adapt technology to solve a capability and that doesn’t skip. So, if you are looking at the autonomous surface vessel space, we fit right into the how do you provide a deterrence to China at scale and fast.”

Saronic executives say they believe DOD could help smaller companies by adjusting the way the department invests in attritable systems.

“At the heart of this [attritable autonomous weapon systems] issue is, stop buying a low-cost attritable system the same way you would buy a ship and buy it the same way you would buy a munition, or an artillery shell or a Hellfire missile,” Lehman said. “[With] an attritable system that when you use it or it becomes no longer the best thing available, you get the next one. So, I think attritable systems is a new way to find capability and coming up with acquisition policies to support that would be very helpful.”

Saronic’s funding round will be led by Caffeinated Capital with help from 8VC, Andreessen Horowitz, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Point72 Ventures, Silent Ventures, Overmatch Ventures, Ensemble VC, Cubit Capital and the U.S. Innovative Technology Fund.

"Saronic is one of the most timely and ambitious companies we have ever partnered with -- its technology will fundamentally transform how the Navy operates over the next century," said Raymond Tonsing, founder and managing partner of Caffeinated Capital, in a press release. "We have been astounded by the speed at which this exceptional team has already begun to bridge the technology gap in naval autonomy."

The fundraising comes at a time when the department is attempting to affordably mass produce autonomous systems.

“Saronic has worked closely with the Navy to build a solution that meets their requirements,” Mavrookas said in a press release. “We’re putting software, autonomy, and mission profiles first, reshaping design for rapid production and deployment, and creating a novel breed of autonomous vessels that can meet current and future threats.”

Saronic is currently developing a six-foot vessel called Spyglass and a 13-foot vessel called Cutlass that both are attritable systems. Both have remotely updatable software and the ability to carry diverse payloads in environments where communication and GPS devices do not function. These systems are intended to allow real-time, collaborative and autonomous mission-level decision making in difficult maritime environments, according to Saronic.

Both programs are expected to be ready for implementation by March 2024 as Saronic plans to unveil them at a Navy exercise focused on autonomous vessels but can adjust the schedule if the Navy needs the technology sooner. The Spyglass production variant is being produced right now, according to Lehman.

“It does us no good to have the best platforms in the world if we can’t get them to the fight at the numbers needed within the timeframe that’s required so everything we do every day is focused on the how and the how much,” Lehman said.

While Saronic raised the cash for this funding round themselves, the Pentagon partnered with the Small Business Administration in late September to try to connect investors with defense startups.

Through this partnership, the Small Business Investment Company Critical Technology Initiative was formed to increase private sector investment in defense and critical technology production. While Saronic did not go through this route to fund its production, the initiative is aimed at smaller companies like Saronic who could use government loans to strengthen their place in the U.S. industrial base.

Mavrookas said that he thinks this partnership is a great step by the department to help smaller companies.

“I mean anything that helps get advanced technology developed and into the hands of the warfighters as fast as possible is beneficial,” he said. “That’s the ecosystem we want to be a part of as a company and something we want to foster. So, yes it will help us, but it will also help a lot of other companies as well build the technology that’s needed for the DOD.